"Am I Not a Man and a Brother?"
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The first and most identifiable image of the 18th century abolitionist movement was a kneeling African man.
Members of the Society of Friends, informally known as Quakers, were among the earliest leaders of the abolitionist movement in Britain and the Americas. By the beginning of the American Revolution, Quakers had moved from viewing slavery as a matter of individual conscience, to seeing the abolition of slavery as a Christian duty.
Quakers, who believe in simplicity in all things, tended to view the arts as frivolous; but when the Quaker-led Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade met in London in 1787, three of its members were charged with preparing a design for "a Seal [to] be engraved for the use of this Society."
Later that year, the society approved a design "expressive of an African in Chains in a Supplicating Posture." Surrounding the naked man was engraved a motto whose wording echoed an idea widely accepted during the Enlightenment among Christians and secularists: "Am I Not A Man and A Brother?" The design was approved by the Society, and an engraving was commissioned.
The design was symbolic both artistically and politically. In addition to evoking classical art, the figure's nudity signified a state of nobility and freedom, yet he was bound by chains. Black figures, usually depicted as servants or supplicants, typically knelt in the art of the period, at a time when members of the upper classes did not kneel when praying; this particular image combined the European theme of conversion from heathenism and the idea of emancipation into a posture of gratitude.
Josiah Wedgewood, who was by then a member of the Society, produced the emblem as a jasper-ware cameo at his pottery factory. Although the artist who designed and engraved the seal is unknown, the design for the cameo is attributed to William Hackwood or to Henry Webber, who were both modelers at the Wedgewood factory.
In 1788, a consignment of the cameos was shipped to Benjamin Franklin in Philadelphia, where the medallions became a fashion statement for abolitionists and anti-slavery sympathizers. They were worn as bracelets and as hair ornaments, and even inlaid with gold as ornaments for snuff boxes. Soon the fashion extended to the general public.
That same year, the image also appeared in London on the covers of a pamphlet addressed to Parliament and a book about a voyage to Guinea, presumably with the Society's approval.
Although the intent and the effect of the emblem was to focus public opinion on the evils of the African slave trade, its ultimate effect was to underscore the perception of black inferiority. The supplicant posture of blacks persisted as a standard feature of Western art long after slavery was abolished.
Ironically, although the image became the emblem of the anti-slavery movement, the Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade was emphatic that its only goal was the abolition of the slave trade, not of slavery itself. That position was vigorously protested by individual members such as Granville Sharp, the most influential abolitionist of his time.
Image Credit: Reproduced with the kind permission of the Trustees of The Wedgwood Museum, Barlaston, Staffordshire, England
Specimen of Modern Printing Types, No. 844
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